Monday, September 10, 2012

Credentials in the Cloud: How Will MOOCs Deal With Plagiarism?

Statistics One | Coursera
Statistics One | Coursera (Photo credit: AJC1)
by Beverley Oliver, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning Futures) at Deakin University, The Conversation:

Many are proclaiming 2012 as the year of the MOOC - Massive Open Online Course - thanks to the arrival of major players, edX, Udacity and Coursera all started by colleagues from elite American universities.

The courses are “massive” with sometimes tens of thousands of students and “open” (free to enrol), but one big unanswered questions is how these courses intend to preserve their credibility in assessment and accreditation?

Not easily is the answer, and already there are reports of incidents of plagiarism in some MOOCs. So far the stakes are low, but what will happen when the chance to get academic credit, or even a job, tempts even the most scrupulous student?

Manipulated MOOCs?

Most MOOCs so far offer quizzes as their main form of assessment - short multiple choice question and answers that are automated. Instructors, of course, cannot be sure who does the quiz but some MOOCs are now choosing other types of assessment that could be more open to foul play.

Coursera, for example, includes submission of essay style answers, graded through peer assessment, because, as the online service notes: “in many courses, the most meaningful assignments do not lend themselves easily to automated grading by a computer.”

But of course, when you have thousands of students, you have thousands of essay assignments which cannot be marked by one lecturer.

So, Coursera has turned to crowd-sourced marking, and claims that students can accurately give feedback to other students. This might be true if the assessment were in a traditional course, but with few consequences, what’s to stop students from skewing the system?

Cheating online

In assessment, as in life, most people do the right thing, but there are still those that deliberately cheat. Coursera seems to be wide open on this, although they do ask every student to agree to an honour code every time they submit an essay assignment. But human nature being what it is, such statements do not deter scoundrels.

In its section on pedagogy, Coursera says it expects that “by having multiple students grade each piece of homework, we will be able to obtain grading accuracy comparable or even superior to that provided by a single teaching assistant.” But this claim needs scrutiny.

In “traditional” conditions, where sanctions and consequences apply, there’s greater likelihood that students will provide proper peer review of others’ work. But crowdsourcing can’t be relied upon when self-interest is at play.

For example, Trip Advisor is a great idea for booking accommodation, but the holiday maker should always bear in mind that hotel owners can covertly rate their own and others’ properties according to vested interests.

The crowd is not always right; nor is it always impartial.

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